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Tag: Booker Prize

Booker longlist review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

This is the fifth longlist choice I’ve read and the second by a Nigerian author. I haven’t read Obioma’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago. This novel has received generally positive reviews from book critics and more mixed reviews at GR, so I wasn’t sure how I’d do with it. And it did take me a little time to get into the rhythm, because it’s a more ornate style of writing than I generally read.

The protagonist of the novel is Chinonso, a poultry farmer in a smallish city. Chinonso’s parents have died and his sister married an older man, moved to Lagos, and became mostly estranged from her family. Chinonso’s closest relative is his uncle, who lives in a different city but visits occasionally. The narrator of the novel is Chinonso’s chi, or spirit, who inhabits his body and communicates with him but cannot direct his behavior. The novel’s beginning and major sections are bracketed by the chi’s appeals to the gods to have mercy on Chinonso in the afterlife because the bad deeds he committed need to be understood in the larger context of his life and its trials.

That life is fairly uneventful until Chinonso prevents a beautiful woman from throwing herself off a bridge. She drives away but he doesn’t forget her. In the meantime he meets other women and starts to think about life beyond the chicken coops and vegetable rows. When Ndali comes back into his life they begin a relationship that is fraught from the beginning: Chinonso is a modest chicken farmer who never went to college, while Ndali is the daughter of a Chief and is studying to become a pharmacist. When their relationship progresses, Ndali brings him home to meet the family, with predictable results. Chinonso is not ashamed of who he is, but he knows it’s not enough for her ambitious and haughty father and brother, so he resolves to turn himself into someone they will accept. Ndali worries about the ramifications of his choice, but she knows it will be nearly impossible for them as things currently stand.

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Weeknote 17

This is our last week before we hit the road and start the school ratrace again next week. And it starts up as soon as we get back. I’m just hoping for decent weather and no big thunderstorms in the plains.

WORK

I managed to get some more work done this week! Amazing. My coauthor and I have found some interesting things going on with a survey we fielded via mTurk, which may be worth a research note in the end. It’s not completely surprising that mTurk workers are not always who they say they are and that has consequences for research, and many of us have been suspicious of the platform for years, but the way this survey was skewed was intriguing.

My committee is humming along nicely. Everyone is doing their bit and we disagree without being disagreeable. Is there higher praise? I think not.

I have one more almost-finished paper draft to get off my desk and then I will breathe a sigh of relief. And start packing up.

READING/WATCHING/LISTENING

I finished An Orchestra of Minorities this week. It is an unusual novel, mixing Igbo cosmology with a plot and characters which owe a great deal to classical Western literature from Homer to Milton to Shakespeare. The main character suffers so many tragedies in his life, and in the final section he becomes consumed by a desire for vengeance. The story took some turns I wasn’t expecting, which was enjoyable, and I found the main character Chinonso’s journey sad but believable and important. I agree with reviewers who say the women characters weren’t well developed, but given everyone felt like an archetype I could live with it. I also appreciated the way the trajectory Ndali, the main female character played out, neither vilified nor idealized. The ending is tragic but given the storyline, it was always going to go there somehow.

I also finished Ironopolis, one of my 20 Books of Summer picks, which I had been picking up and putting down for the last month. It’s very good, but it’s a hard read. Set in Middlesborough from the mid-1980s through the present, it tells the story of a sink estate through the voices of half a dozen characters who are connected to each other in various ways. It negotiates the difficult line between sentimentalizing and condescending, but there’s no way around the fact that the lives of people in these positions mostly became worse over this period, as jobs went away, housing fell into disrepair, and drugs and alcohol became plentiful and/or cheap. Of the various books I’ve read with spirits and rural-English mythical beings, I thought this one handled it as well as any. I’ll write up a full review of this and the Obioma soonish.

No TV or movies this week, because we had a friend visiting who helped TheH with necessary household work. We now have a new floor in the guest bathroom and various other improvements. Go them. We ate well, though; lots of fresh fish from the boats at Half Moon Bay.

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Booker Longlist Review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This is the fourth book I’ve read from the longlist. I had read Luiselli’s previous nonfiction work, Tell Me How It Ends, which describes her experiences as a translator for children apprehended at the border, and I thought it was excellent. This is a much longer and more complex work of fiction, with multiple storylines and themes. It may have too much going on, but its ambition should not be held against it.

This novel falls squarely within the current trend of autofiction and combines a road trip, a marriage that is ending, and twin stories of children becoming lost in the southern Arizona desert. As I said, there’s a lot going on. The characters in the main storyline comprise a blended family of four who are traveling from New York to southern Arizona on a long, fairly leisurely automobile journey. The husband and wife are documentary sound specialists, by which they mean scholars and artists who record all kinds of sounds that help them understand and illuminate the built and natural worlds in which we live. The father is embarking on a new project set in Apacheria, the part of the United States that was the home of the Apache nation before they were massacred by Americans (and previously Mexicans) and relocated to reservations. The mother is continuing a project that records the sounds of unaccompanied children and southern border migration. Their two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged ten, are with them on the trip.

The family road trip aspect of the novel is structured by the journey and their work, which is contained in seven bankers’ boxes in the back of the station wagon. They contain supplementary material, including archival resources, and also the children’s selections for the journey (toys, books, photos). Along the way the mother reads from a book, Elegies for Lost Children, which tells the story of seven unaccompanied children who are riding La Bestia, the train to the US border, and that journey serves as something of a parallel roadtrip. The two storylines are brought together in the last section of novel, which is told from the son’s point of view; all the preceding narrative has been from the mother’s perspective.

The mother’s narrative ranges far and wide, from mundane and not-so-mundane observations of people and places along the road, to recollections and quotes from scholarly and creative books she’s read, to internal monologues about her husband and marriage. The husband is present as the driver and fellow artist, but he’s almost entirely silent, except for a few times when he talks directly to the children and less often to her. Luiselli namechecks many writers and thinkers, which fit into the flow of the story for me because I knew who most of them were. But if you aren’t as familiar with this literature it could be distracting or annoying. Some readers found it self-conscious and pretentious. I enjoyed it.

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Weeknote 16

It was an uneventful week, with very little out-and-about-ness. I minimized movement to give my knee time to recover (tendons and inflammation cannot be exercised/powered through) and it’s the dog days work-wise, so I read and did house stuff, mostly.

WORK

My coauthor and I wrapped up the first draft of our conference paper, so yay for us. It’s a very good paper, at least I think it is, and I can say this because I feel as if my coauthor did most of the work. He’s presenting it as a poster at the conference and I don’t have much left to do.

This week I get to nudge my committees and colleagues to the next stage of our tasks. So email! As I write these weekly notes, I realize how much time I spent either writing email, responding to email, or thinking about which emails I have to deal with and in what capacity. I guess it’s just the 21stC equivalent of memos, but somehow it seems more endless.

I should probably start thinking about what I want to change up in my classes this semester. I’m doing an overload this fall (don’t ask) and for scheduling and other reasons I have three, which I’ve only done one other time. It’s doable as long as I’m very organized (hahahaha) but it’s tiring. One of them is on immigration, which went really well last year but with everything going on I probably need to think about how I’m going to approach it.

READING/WATCHING/LISTENING

I finished up Lost Children Archive, my fourth Booker longlist read, and I need to write the review. The first half was a slog and I can’t say I really enjoyed it, although it was interesting and I think I could see what the author was trying to do. The second half was much better and very powerful. The book as a whole made me think a lot about where my limits are to reading autofiction: what kind, what works and what doesn’t, etc. I’m now reading the next two more or less together: Ducks, Newburyport and An Orchestra of Minorities. The latter is from the library and I need to get it read before I have to return it. It’s quite compelling and I’m finding it hard to put down even though the style is more ornate than I usually go for. Ducks is hypnotic, at least I’ve fallen into the rhythm quite easily. I don’t know how it will feel for 1000 pages, but so far I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s really accomplished.

We watched the next Maigret and Foyle’s War episodes, both of which were about attitudes toward immigrants. They hit a bit close to home and I wouldn’t say they were entirely enjoyable, although they were excellently done. I’m just so worn out and my ability to cope with endless, avoidable tragedy is at a low. The Jackson Brodie installment we watched, which was merely about routine corruption and murder, seemed almost mundane in comparison, and how sad is that?

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Booker Longlist Review: The Wall by John Lanchester

This is my first book by Lanchester, although I’ve been meaning to read his novels for ages. I’ve read his journalism regularly for years. This is very prescient, obviously, not just because of the wall that dominates the story, but also because of the intersection of climate change and the displacement of vast populations. The wall surrounds an island nation which is obviously Britain in the near or not-so-near future. Every young citizen is required to serve two years guarding the wall, except for the offspring of the very elite, who somehow escape this duty. Our narrator, Kavanagh, is just taking up his post when the story opens, and the first section of the novel chronicles his experiences as a Defender.

Being a Defender is relatively dull, but the consequences of failure are profound. Defenders are trained to prevent people called Others from successfully scaling the wall and entering the fortified nation. Although everyone is chipped, and therefore Others are fairly quickly discovered and apprehended, the penalty for Defenders who fail to prevent entry is to be put to sea in small boats, on a one-for-one ratio. In other words, if fifteen Others enter the country then fifteen Defenders and other culpable people must be sent away.

The first sections are taken up with the quotidian aspects of Kavanagh’s new life. He learns the procedures to follow, gets to know some of his fellow Defenders, goes back to see his parents on his off-rotation time, and generally settles into a set routine. The language is simple and Kavanagh doesn’t have particularly interesting thoughts. If Lanchester was aiming to portray military boredom through the writing style, he does so fairly effectively. I didn’t find it boring (although I’m sure some readers will), and while the world-building is minimal you do get a strong sense of how circumscribed people’s lives are. There is a generational divide between the older people who remember a time before the Change which brought about the wall and the younger people who have only known the time since.

The second and third sections are much more action-filled. I don’t want to spoil the book for people who haven’t read it, because I thought it worked well for me to go into it without much background. You can probably guess what happens. Kavanagh develops a romantic attachment which continues through the story, and we learn more about Others and the world beyond the wall. Other readers have observed similarities with Exit West, which I can kind of see, especially in the structure, but beyond that and the fact that they are both dystopian novels set in a recognizable future, I don’t see the parallels.

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